Tennis, like sports as a whole, mirrors and reveals real things about the humans who play inside the lined rectangle. However, tennis is not life itself, at least not a representative version of it.
There was Andy Murray, accepting the silver platter again. The two-time Grand Slam winner has seemed tortured at the Australian Open, and that fate remained in place on Sunday. Murray dropped a hard-fought three-set men’s final to nemesis and friend Novak Djokovic, 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3), the Scotsman’s fifth finals loss Down Under.
Yet, for all the pain this loss should ordinarily bring to a determined professional, Murray seemed detached from the moment and the misery he theoretically should have been feeling. Mind you, he wasn’t gleeful or even overly emotional, but he showed clear perspective, thanking people right down to the event volunteers and recognizing Djokovic’s greatness.
It appeared Murray’s post-match emotions were both blunted yet more thoughtfully conveyed than after previous finals losses in Melbourne. How did the man, the Muzz, muster such admittedly monotone goodwill after yet another drubbing at the hands of Djokovic inside Rod Laver Arena?
Simply put, there’s more to life for Murray right now than Novak Djokovic’s greatness across the net. You can’t plan for life’s intrusions, and Murray has certainly dealt with his fair share this fortnight. That’s why this loss won’t sting as much.
Murray’s wife, Kim Sears, is nearly nine months pregnant and could go into labor at a moment’s notice. Murray has seemed genuinely nervous and excited about impending fatherhood, and surely the birth of his first child in the coming weeks will shift focus off this loss to Djokovic. These events aren’t cure-alls for our scars as human beings, but in Murray’s case it does offer renewal and opportunity for a man who seems to be perpetually banging his head against a wall against Djokovic in recent years. Murray now owns a 2-13 record vs. Djokovic since 2013, and is 0-4 against him in Australian Open finals.
Murray planned to leave Melbourne in the wee hours after the nighttime final, saying in his post-match remarks: “To my wife Kim: You’ve been a legend the last two weeks. I’ll be on the next flight home.” That sounds like someone whose mind wasn’t on tennis anymore.
Then there’s the matter of his father-in-law’s health. Nigel Sears collapsed while coaching Ana Ivanovic in her third-round loss last week, a scary situation that briefly put him in a hospital. Murray said it was weighing on his mind, an added stressor that made his ensuing finals appearance all the more remarkable.
It also represented an immediate, concrete intrusion of reality into the narrow-minded life of a tennis player during the two-week Grand Slam grind. He could plan for his wife going into labor, but not her father collapsing while he was in the midst of a match a stadium away.
Strangely, those life events mark a silver lining to what could have otherwise been a frustrating re-run of an old movie. Djokovic is beyond dominant right now, and the Australian Open is his signature event. Murray’s run in the Aussie Open is eerily similar to Roger Federer’s string of finals losses to Rafael Nadal in the French Open. You can be better than everybody else, but beating an all-time great on his favorite court is too much to ask.
Sunday’s match wasn’t quite a carbon copy of the duo’s recent finals. Djokovic picked up where he left off in his semifinal against Federer, dealing Murray a body blow in the opening set and nearly bageling the Brit in 30 minutes. That was economical compared to the tennis that followed.
Commendably, Murray kicked up his game and truly pushed the indomitable World No. 1 in the final two sets. The No. 2 seed was practically Djokovic’s equal in an interminable second set, even breaking Novak and pumping out 21 winners. Unfortunately, his forehand loosened a bit as he tried to attack Djokovic’s backhand, and that opened up a late break for the top seed.
The trend continued in an hour-long final set. Ultimately, Murray admirably fought a declining first serve and forced a tiebreak. He gave away a point down 1-2 in the tiebreak and the Djoker rolled from there. Murray seemed resigned to his fate, but his mind seemed thousands of miles away as soon as Djokovic’s match-point ace sliced past him.
Really, Murray shouldn’t dwell on this. He acquitted himself well, grinding out a three-hour match that forced Djokovic to lift his own game. It’s no small feat under the circumstances. If you can push the Serb in big moments, that’s all you can ask. Djokovic is just not losing these events right now, leaving everyone else playing for second.
That Murray was in position to collect another finals loss in the midst of a tumultuous week speaks volumes about his resolve. You don’t get to lose seven Slam championship matches unless you keep making the finals — something that is important in assessing Murray’s stature within men’s tennis during the 2010s, especially in relation to a player like Stan Wawrinka and the Swiss’s otherwise comparable resume. A loss in a major final might be more crushing than an earlier exit under normal circumstances.
Luckily, the same life distractions should be a source of great contentment in the aftermath of another disheartening second-place finish. His father-in-law is, by all accounts, in stable condition after the scary incident. He likely won’t be in a hospital when Kim gives birth. That’s ultimately what Murray’s 2016 is all about.
Dour as it sounds, there’ll be plenty more losses to Djokovic. At least Murray won’t have to dwell on this one.